THE BEATLES "AND YOUR BIRD CAN SING"
Examined, dissected by Walter Everett, Tim Riley in their new book
Over half a century after Beatlemania made itself known around the globe and dozens of books and movies later, you might think that there was nothing else you could learn about the Fab Four, but you'd be wrong. Walter Everett and Tim Riley are authors/professors who have written multiple books about the band have teamed up to create What Goes On (Oxford University Press) which delves into the intricacies of the foursome's songs and career, looking at their musicianship and the often-overlooked details of the band's music whereas the lyrics have been the usual focus of studies on them otherwise.
While some of the band's better known numbers are dissected ("Yesterday," "I Want To Hold Your Hand"), there's also a number of lesser-known but not lesser quality songs that they also take the time to delve into, helping us learn more about the band than we thought we knew. Here, we get the skinny on a song that started out on the UK version of Revolver but got sliced off the US version and relegated to the Yesterday and Today collection. As you'll see here, "And Your Bird Can Sing" deserves better than that and deserves our attention too.
Bob Dylan's blues- leaning version of the old folk number "Corrina, Corrina" includes a line borrowed from Robert Johnson, "I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings; but I ain't got Corinna— life don't mean a thing" (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1963). In "And Your Bird Can Sing," John Lennon tropes this idea for a subtle anti-materialist statement a full year before the message would become more overt in songs like "Baby, You're a Rich Man" and "Within You Without You." Lennon's theme is larger in "Bird"— not only does the singer devalue material possessions, but he calls the listener to awaken as if from slumber and seek clear, important goals by ignoring the distractions of superficial everyday business. Lennon might also be heard to offer himself as a spiritual as well as cultural Messiah figure, a self- characterization that would be suspect for other reasons in mid- 1966. "You don't get ME," he taunts with a sudden multiply- voiced ego in the I triad (0:17– 0:20); "Look in my direction," he hints, guiding the way with the reassuringly goal- directed dominant preparation chord (ii) and then the song's only expression of V harmony reserved for the retransitional1 promise, "I'll be 'round." (Perhaps "Ain't She Sweet," recorded in 1961 and used as a warm up at least in 1969, was also on Lennon's mind: therein, he ended a bridge phrase with "in her direction" on the same pitches, B, C# and E, which he ends the "my direction" phrase in "Bird.")
Clarity wins out over ambiguity, direct simplicity over confusing complexity. The song's stable diatonic basis through verses contrasts against an uncertain bridge section, where the iii chord (a deeply involved ii of ii) expands with the sort of descending chromatic line heard in "Michelle" that would later become a Lennon staple ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "Dear Prudence") and would eventually be adopted by Harrison ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Something"). (The chromatic progression comes most directly from the bridge of "It Won't Be Long" (at "Since you left me"), its descending bass line, G#– F– F#–E, taken from the high backing vocal of the 1963 track to support the lead vocal, which ornaments B with its upper neighbor C# in each case.) John's guitar carries a simple and direct droning tonic chord through verses, strummed in a generous rhythm, once on every pulse. This steady, stable foil stands against George's and Paul's self- consciously intricate guitar-and- bass trio tattoos2, prized but taxing (under the weight of worldly possessions), surrounding John's verses, busily dividing beats with parallel thirds, horn fifths, and then parallel sixths. Additionally, Lennon uses his vocal accents to clarify the notion of rhythmic contrast: every syllable articulates its own beat in verses, but syncopations push each syllable onto an offbeat in bridges, wherein the "bird is broken" (presaging an image of racially divisive struggle in McCartney's "Blackbird"). For his part, Ringo's open jangles in verses turn to tense hi- hat chokings in bridges and illuminating cymbal crashes whenever V finds I.
John's vocal part in bridges shows constancy in the face of change in pitch as well as rhythm. Whereas his line builds largely on an unchanging fifth scale degree (with some ornamentation, as with the upper neighbor to 5 so common in his melodic writing in 1962– 1964: note in "Please Please Me" the attention to 5– 6– 5 at "said these words," and in "A Hard Day's Night," note the high degree of Chuck Berry– like repetition on 5, ornamented by a bluesy 7 above, as in "work-ing"), John's vocally stressed B is harmonized in numerous ways that begin in obscurity but come into focus as the harmony becomes more clearly defined: to open the bridge, B functions as the chordal third of ii/ ii; it then becomes the seventh of V7/ ii, the fifth of IV/ V, the suspended and anticipatory eleventh of ii, and then the powerfully clarified root of the retransitional V. (This is a similar process of discovery in the reharmonized ending of "She Loves You" and the introductory motto of "Help!," presented here with masterly understatement.) The singer sounds at one with all phases of the universe, but this only approaches clarity with the words "I'll be 'round." The listener's awakening emerges in a similar, gradually unfolding sense out of the hazy introduction to "If I Fell" and corresponds to the reassurance John gave himself in the retransitional line "The world is at your command" in "Nowhere Man."
In verse 2, John describes the bird as "green," the color he once used to paint others' jealousies over the singer's possession of a woman (in "You Can't Do That"). The disparagement here of vivid color (greenness is too much of this world and does not lead the true seeker to aspire to invisible bliss) might be interpreted as an early reaction against psychedelia— a position the composer would soon reverse: "Listen to the color of your dreams," he advises in "Tomorrow Never Knows." Lennon specialized in such absolute, all- then- nothing about- faces, as with his later embrace then spurning of the Maharishi and his rejection then promotion of political protest (stunningly changing his mind in a single phrase of "Revolution:" "you can count me out— in"). After he was initially upset by the LSD once dropped surreptitiously into his coffee, the chemical would for a time become mother's milk once John discovered its cosmic potential, an elixir of escape from the real world's traps and doldrums.
Throughout, distraction gets drawn by busy guitars, unfathomable chords, pushy rhythmic accents, and material colors. One near- final complication of inharmonious pitches reiterates this: in verse 3, the line "every sound there is" acquires a new pair of descant vocals noisy in their dissonance against the ruling texture, leading at 1:19 to a V chord sung incongruously over the governing I. Once again, a tangle of trees diverts attention from the forest of larger goals; one must not attend the flashy confusion of "every sound" when a harmonious "om" underlies everything. See beyond the seven wonders, hear beyond the tantalizing birdsong, for a revelation of communal truths in one single, constant vibration.
"And Your Bird Can Sing" remains an under-celebrated Revolver song, partly because its message employs veiled language in post-Dylan metaphors of impressionistic poetry and music. Like the best of Lennon, appreciation of its value requires thoughtful interpretation of its symbols. Ultimately, he sings, one may have everything one wants, but without investing at more spiritual levels, love will be out of reach, and life will have no meaning. In the song's final display of worldly confusion, an inconclusive IV chord overrides an insistent 1 in the bass that seems to ask, "What do you think?" Quite a profound statement made complete in two minutes.
CUE SECTION HARMONY DETAIL 0:00 Introductory tattoo I trio: GH/ PM guitar duet, PM bass 0:07 Verse 1 I– ii– IV– I JL strums 0:20 Link I Tattoo reference 0:22 Verse 2 0:36 Bridge 1 > exp iii– V/ ii JL syncopated vocal, GH/ PM gtrs/ bs trio 0:43 Retransition I– ii– V 0:50 Break 1 (from verse) Tattoo trio 1:05 Bridge 2 > 1:12 Retransition 1:19 Verse 3 noisy PM/ GH descants 1:34 Break 2 Tattoo trio 1:48 Coda I– IV/ 1 (!) Tattoo trio
1) 'Retransition'- "the last part of the development section, which prepares for the return of the opening idea" (Oxford Music Online)
2) 'Tattoo' – Walter Everett: "Bass and guitar begin with different materials but come together in a riff that articulates the beginning or ending of a song. When this riff occurs more than once in a song, always without voices, and it functions to alert the rest of the band and audience that a certain point has been reached or maybe that the song has been reset to the beginning, I call this instrument-only alert a 'tattoo.'"
What Goes On is available from Oxford University Press
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